Mierle Laderman Ukeles “Maintenance Art” at Queens Museum, New York
by Elena Tavecchia
Maintenance Art is the first institutional retrospective focusing on the practice of the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who has committed fifty years of her career to bringing to light what lies behind the scenes. Following her early engagement with thematics of the urban and ecological environment in the early 1960s, which gave shape to the series of the inflatable sculptures “Air Art,” Ukeles’s practice took a radical shift following her 1969 “Manifesto for Maintenance Art.” This bold feminist statement, issued after she had her first child, addressed the apparently irreconcilable dualism she perceived in society between being an artist and being a mother. With her revolutionary manifesto, Ukeles reversed that point of view and broke this forced separation. She delineated a distinction between development and maintenance, in which the former stands for the creation of the new, progress, and excitement, while the latter is about preservation, care, and sustenance. This empowering way of reconsidering social dynamics upends the discriminatory gender bias that ascribes higher value to a working practice identified as masculine while the “feminine” practice of care and maintenance is demoted to a lower status and wage. As Andrea Liss points out in her 2009 book Feminist Art and the Maternal, Ukeles’s pronouncement consisted of treating her maternal work as material for art and cultural commentary. Her manifesto was a groundbreaking statement that continues to resound in the twenty-first century.
Following a series of maintenance performances in the early 1970s included in the traveling exhibition c. 7500, curated by Lucy Lippard—an overview of feminist Conceptual art—Ukeles took an important leap in 1976. For her work I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, she invited three hundred maintenance workers at the Whitney Museum of American Art to conceive of their work as “maintenance art” for one hour every day during their eight-hour work shift. At that time, New York was in a deep financial crisis and about to declare bankruptcy. Following a cheeky review of the show in which a journalist suggested that the Department of Sanitation might apply for art funds, given the economic situation, Ukeles decided to take this suggestion literally and initiated a long-term commitment as the official unsalaried artist in residence of the Department of Sanitation. Challenging social expectations once again, Ukeles identified her work as a mother with concerns for the labor of the others, and forged a deep connection with male and female maintenance workers.
Her first related performance, Touch Sanitation (1979–80), lasted eleven months, during which she met with each of the 8,500 sanitation employees of New York’s fifty-nine districts. Pictures taken during this extensive performance show Ukeles shaking hands with the employees, listening to their stories, and thanking them for their efforts in keeping the city alive. She would also imitate their movements, which was the most explicit way to acknowledge their effort. Telefax messages were sent out every morning from Sanitation headquarters to all the city districts, so that the workers could keep track of her daily reach in the surrounding areas. Much documentation and numerous works related to the project ended up in Touch Sanitation Show, a massive exhibition displayed at two locations in 1984, which is now re-presented for the first time at the Queens Museum retrospective. Included in both shows is One Year’s Worktime II (1984/2016), a full year of work shifts in the form of clock faces silkscreened over a gradient of colors representing the seasons. The work fully occupies the main wall of the Queens Museum and functions as a celebration of the daily effort of the sanitation workers.
From the mid-1980s through 2013 Ukeles staged several Work Ballets in different cities across the United States, Europe, and the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale in Japan. She worked with the skilled drivers of trucks for trash collection and snowplowing and choreographed graceful and intricate performances specifically developed for each setting. Staging the aesthetic potential of heavy-duty tools generally associated with dirt and removal was once again a way for Ukeles to shed an artistic light on what usually stays behind the scenes.
At the heart of Ukeles’s commitment to art, the environment, and her engagement with the lives of workers is her deep Jewish faith. Repair Room, made across many decades, is organized around the theme of tikkun olam, or the healing actions of individuals and communities. Past projects involving participatory installations and unrealized proposals are presented in an intimate setting, attempting to address peace and healing torn societies.
The center of the exhibition is occupied by the final and most visionary effort of the artist to date: the Landing project on the site of the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. Since the beginning of her experience as an artist in residence at the Department of Sanitation in 1977, Ukeles was interested in landfills as sites of transformation (connecting again to her environmental concerns). Following the 2001 closure of Fresh Kills, one of the world’s largest landfills, whose last dramatic intake was the debris from the World Trade Center, the site has been progressively reclaimed and integrated with engineering and environmental control systems that contain the waste and its by-products. In 2018 it will finally reopen as Freshkills Park, including a three-part work of Land art by Ukeles that was planned through a long engagement with the site and its development.
The soon-to-be happy ending of Fresh Kills Landfill brings a positive example into the haunted problem of waste disposal, one of the most pressing issues currently affecting metropolises and nations all over the world. Less-encouraging scenarios are described in the documentary films Polluting Paradise (2012, dir. Fatih Akin) and Trashed (2012, dir. Candida Brady), among others.
at Queens Museum, New York
until 19 February 2017